My dad, L.S. Kelly, Jr., was born in the depression years and spent his early childhood in a nation swept up in World War II, a war that makes Memorial Day meaningful to many. He lived in Englewood, NJ at the time. He conveys the times, their import revealing just how different his world was from the one I now know. I read his words from an interview and find myself confronting the visceral impact of a time of upheaval, the imprint on his psyche, his perspective of the U.S. and of the military, of “us” vs. “them” shaped by circumstances more stark in their contrast to what we now live, more surreal in hindsight. No one could point at the term “axis of evil” and shred its hypocrisy because It applied. And it applied thoroughly in the minds of those shaped by the fallout.
In the only way I know how to memorialize a day that has become, to me, less about the idea of a noble U.S. military infrastructure and more about honoring those who bring integrity to a failing ideal, I’m posting my dad’s responses to the interview questions here. His heart comes through the lines he wrote for my son’s A.P. U.S. History class. The clarity of what matters shatters my hesitation to note the day, my frustration with the distortion our military might has become. The day should be noted and we should never forget, no matter our stance on the military-industrial complex, because there was a time…
What can you remember about growing up during WWII?
A feeling of heaviness and fear – dread – during the early years. The Japanese, Germans and Italians were portrayed in the media as some pretty awful folks. And they did some pretty awful things, which were shown at the movie theater before the main event. Newsreels were gross. Life magazine was as graphic as they could get away with. That changed a whole lot with military successes.
We had rationing of materials and food. Gasoline. Nylon – women went back to silk stockings. The war effort took a lot of stuff off the shelves of the grocery stores.
Cigarettes. We saved cans [-] like vegetables came in. Flattened them and took them to some point where they could be given up for scrap metal. Then came victory gardens. We had three plots in the back yard one summer, and after that five families that socialized together Kellys, Jim Kellys, DeSaussueres, Whitsons, Stokes, had huge garden in Cresskill, NJ where DeSaussaures lived.
Our next-door neighbor was the block air raid warden. When we had an air raid alert (practice of the system), we hung blankets over the windows, kept the lights down low so as not to disclose the whereabouts of a populated area to enemy bombers. The warden would knock on the door if light was showing around the blanket. He wore a white helmet and acted extremely seriously, as did we all. Just about everything we did was in the context of national defense.
The doctor who lived across the street was in the army in Europe. He had a son my age who received packages of souvenirs from his father, actual Wehrmacht uniforms, which he and I dressed up in and paraded around the neighborhood. Once. AS widow lady around the corner got all upset, and that was the end of my German career.
When the A-bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, I was 9 years old. We knew nothing could survive that and continue to wage war, and the feeling of relief brought a sense of elation and national pride. We had fought two wars at the same time and beat the bad guys. Which they were.
How did it impact you personally?
I got to eat a lot of organ meats, since they were undesirable and carried a lower meat-coupon penalty. Tuna, chipped beef.
Sometimes we had nightmares: Go to the movies on Saturday afternoon and come home, to go [to] bed and recall the newsreel. The boy next door was in the navy in the Pacific and we worried about him.
Mrs. Knowles’ 2nd grade class at Franklin School in Englewood, NJ would pray together every morning, the Lord’s prayer, and we’d recite the pledge to the flag and would sing the National Anthem. Often Mrs. Knowles would then have some story or inspirational thing she’d share with us. She had a brother who was a dog-face in France at the time. That means in the Infantry, in the mud.
One morning she held up a quite thick, yet shirt-pocket-sized thing, that turned out to be a book. It was her brother’s bible. He had been carrying it all the time. We watched as she opened it enough for us to see the hole in it, which still held the kraut bullet that her brother’s bible had stopped, effectively ending its deadly journey toward his heart.
That was the classroom where I broke down one morning when we were singing the Star-Spangled Banner. Boo hoo. Everybody looking at the simple goose crying. I couldn’t tell why. They called my mother, and she couldn’t tell them, either. When I got home, I couldn’t tell her why. I didn’t know. She didn’t know either. Nobody was gonna ask my Daddy. Who knows?
Any observations about that time and that war in general?
Nobody even thought about burning a flag. Not a stars n stripes. It was a time when the nation really seemed to be together about one thing: beating the Axis.
My 80+ year-old dad, who texts his daughters every night when he goes to bed – sending his love, who loves silly humor and growing tomatoes reminds me what shapes the minds of a nation, what lays the foundation for exploitation of fear: the real thing. Not that we have not known terror here in our time, but most of us have no point of reference, no way of knowing what war looks like. And the experiences of a child, his reflections over 70 years later reveal what we hope to never know but to also never forget, even if only for the sake of those who lived it. Here and abroad. Here’s to those who gave. While I may not want us to ever drop another bomb and though it hurts to think of the suffering of Hiroshima, this, too, is true: we must never lose sight of the humanity, the lives given in service.